Why was the late High Court Judge Lai Kew Chai at a “political dinner”?

May 7, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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The SDP came across this photograph showing a youngish-looking Mr Lai Kew Chai, a former Singapore Supreme Court Judge, at a dinner with some of his friends.

The caption on the photograph reads: “Major political dinner in Singapore given to honor Ms Steiner. Mr Freddie Lee – brother of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Chief Justice Lai Kew Chai, Dr Siew Leong Oh, and wives, with Ms Steiner.”

The picture is found on a website belonging to Ms Carol Lynn Steiner’s law firm (http://www.cls.us/bio.html). It boasts of Ms Steiner’s associations with powerful politicians and business leaders. The law firm focuses on “corporate finance and acquisitions.”

Lai Kew Chai (back row, middle), Freddie Lee to his right

Lai Kew Chai (back row, middle), Freddie Lee to his right

The question is what was the late Mr Lai (who was incorrectly labeled as Chief Justice in the photograph) doing at a “major political dinner”? The picture seems to have been taken in the 1980s.

Clearly, Ms Steiner’s website is attempting to show how well-connected she is. She makes it a point to tell her readers that Mr Freddie Lee is none other than the brother of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

But she should know that, as a lawyer, it is completely inappropriate for her to caption the photograph as a “major political dinner” to honour her when one of her fellow diners was a High Court Judge of Singapore.

Mr Lai was at the centre of a controversy surrounding his purchase of a condominium developed by Mr Ong Beng Seng of Hotel Properties Limited (HPL). Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family members, including Mr Lee Hsien Loong, also purchased the condominiums at hugely discounted rates on the same day as the judge.

Mr Lee’s brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew, was a director at HPL and had also bought an apartment at a hefty discount.

When Mr Tang Liang Hong, an opposition candidate in the 1997 elections, questioned the purchases Mr Lee sued him for defamation.

Mr Lai was assigned to hear the case. Noting that the judge had also purchased the HPL condominiums and given the controversial discounted rates, Mr Tang said that the judge had vested interest in the case.

A more recent picture of the late Judge Lai

 

Mr Tang then applied through his lawyer, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, for Judge Lai to disqualify himself from hearing the case.

Mr Tang also pointed out that Mr Lai had been a partner at Lee & Lee, the law firm founded by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his brother, Dennis before Mr Lai’s appointment as high court judge in 1981. At the age of 40, Mr Lai was the youngest judge to be appointed to the country’s Supreme Court.

In any event Mr Lai refused to recuse himself from hearing Tang’s case, pointing out that Mr Tang had made “false allegations” against him. The judge denied that he had a close relationship with the Lee family.

The purchases of the condominiums on the same day was, according to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a “mere coincidence.”

Judge Lai subsequently found Mr Tang guilty of defaming Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He passed away in February 2006.